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SAMRISK-2-Samfunnssikkerhet og risiko

CoPol: Covid-19 contact tracing as Digital Politics

Alternative title: CoPol: Covid-19 kontakt-sporing som digital politikk

Awarded: NOK 12.0 mill.

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Project Period:

2021 - 2025


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CoPol studies Covid-19 contact tracing as digital politics and as data practice on the interfaces between technology, public health and fundamental rights. It claims that the Covid-19 pandemic is a constitutive moment in the evolution of digital politics, where fundamental relations between citizens and states, technologies and institutions have become and are being re-configured. In a very short time and under great urgency and uncertainty, actors from technology, public health and legal regulation came together to build pandemic response. Societal reliance on data has been fortified through practices that monitor and contain viral spread while simultaneously aiming to open up society and enable continuity of critical societal functions. Within this situation new actor constellations have shaped through new data-driven practices, and on prior national and international institutions, preparedness plans, and technological infrastructures. A case in point is the now abandoned Norwegian Smittestopp app: it was developed nationally, was compliant with European regulations on data protection (by design) and ran on a platform supplied by Apple and Google. The project studies digital contact tracing as social and data practice over time and in as comparative perspective. It has four main work packages, each highlighting contact tracing from a specific perspective: politics and institutions (WP1), infrastructure (WP2), public health (WP3) and fundamental rights (WP4). Through workshops, interviews, legal analysis and ethnographic studies, we analyze different actors imaginations of digital contact tracing, especially emphasizing the role of new data practices such as e-health and privacy engineering. Results will be incorporated into an overall analysis of contact tracing as data politics, drawing upon a concept of data imaginaries. Throughout the last year, the project has further developed the concepts of digital politics (i.e. mainly through deepening understanding on 'imaginaries'). Empirically, it has started to produce results relating to two interrelated areas (by 'interrelated' we mean: in a networked form, operating within, across and outside of national boundaries): The first concerns the role played by data protection (or: privacy) by design for the closure of public controversies, in Norway and elsewhere in Europe (mainly France, but also in Latvia). We have detected shifts to: 1) notions of digital sovereignty, 2) notions of privacy, and 3) configurations of public and private. These shifts are mainly enabled through the incursions of large technology corporations such as Apple and Google, and their GAEN joint framework. The second concerns the embedding of digital preparedness within the national governance of digital health infrastructures. This is also reflected in continued efforts to digitalise activities across the health care services of Norwegian municipalities. The means through which these developments have been tracked are: 1) document studies (mainly policy and technical literature, including DPIAs), 2) a one-day workshop with centrally involved actors within public health and privacy protection in Norway, 3) observations of public debates. Results exist as project reports (i.e. data protection analysis, workshop report) and as academic publications. These are in various stages of publication, from submitted manuscripts to works in progress.

In efforts to counter the Covid-19 threat to public health, data is a central locus around which societies re-organise and mobilise. Although great uncertainty persists, it is clear that processing of data from different sources will play increasingly important roles in public health, politics and everyday life. How does such widespread use of data change the role of expertise, and how does it relate to issues of fundamental rights to privacy and democracy? In order to address this question, this project will focus on collection and use of data through contact tracing, and the ways in which these become associated to main societal values and goals, and to legal and technical forms of expertise. The project will investigate main ways in which contact data become interpreted and integrated within practices of public health, and the ways in which traditional trust relations invested in public health officials are supported, or taken over, by more digitally-driven approaches (such as epidemiological models and data science). Privacy and data protection issues will be considered as intrinsically related to these questions through novel practices of data protection impact assessments and data protection by design, counted among the main measures through which fundamental rights can be upheld and protected in contact tracing. Co-Pol will propose a comprehensive approach, based in science and technology studies (STS) of the public role of science and technology, to inquire and critically analyse public and political values, institutional and societal structures and forms of organisation. Following Covid-19, societal trust, preparedness and resilience will not emerge automatically through science and technology, and cannot be planned for or foreseen in any straightforward way; rather, crucial capacities will have to be built through careful attention to broader conditions for societal learning, and the role of fundamental rights and democratic participation.

Funding scheme:

SAMRISK-2-Samfunnssikkerhet og risiko